Author and gardener Sydney Eddison once observed, “Gardens are a form of autobiography”. In a landscape dotted with gardens that stand testimony to Delhi’s long standing love affair with horticulture, no manicured terra tells the city’s story better than the first park of the republic, the Mughal Gardens. Following the celebration of Basant Panchami at the yellow marigold-bedecked Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia, on February 5, 2017, President Pranab Mukherjee inaugurated the annual Udyanotsav festival in Rashtrapati Bhavan and opened the Gardens to the public for a month.

It is an important event in Delhi’s social calendar, marking the arrival of spring, and its popularity can be gauged from the footfall: approximately 5 lakh visitors in 2016.

This year’s special attractions include roses named after the President and his wife, vertical gardens and special themed plots with plants representing, among others, music, celestial bodies and herbal healing.

New in 2017: a section dedicated to air-purifying plants, its launch being extremely well-timed given Delhi’s ignominious distinction of being named the world’s most polluted city in 2016.

The elusive Gardens have been made more accessible with a new book titled, First Garden of the Republic: Nature in the President’s Estate. Published by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the coffee table volume is part of a series documenting the different facets of the presidential palace. First Garden has been edited by Amita Baviskar, and includes essays from the editor, ecologist Ghazala Shahabuddin and environmentalist Pradip Krishen.

The richly illustrated hardcover contains 255 pages replete with information, sumptuous photographs and interesting anecdotes. The seven chapters comprehensively cover topics like the Garden’s floral composition, the complex and buried social history of Raisina Hill, and the invisible, unsung gardeners who maintain and nurture the Gardens throughout the year. Unlike people like me, whose connection with nature has been reduced to weather predictions on a smart phone, these malis are in sync with the rhythms of seasons.

Gardens have historically played an important social role on the subcontinent, and although the environment may have changed, some habits die hard. The spring opening of the Mughal Gardens could be an unintended adherence to ancient prescriptions on garden excursions (udyanagamanam) during spring (vasantotsav), when people visited gardens to witness nature’s celebration of sringar. Couples visiting the Mughal Gardens can appreciate why, in the play Mrichhakatika, Vasantsena falls in love with Charudutt in a garden during spring.

Image credit: Vijay Mathur / Reuters

Although this book does not refer to the rich Sanskrit literature on pleasure gardens, First Garden is an important addition to scholarship on India’s ecological history.

Delhi’s primarily open scrub landscape has been manipulated by people for centuries. For example, medieval chronicler Ziauddin Barani records that Firoz Shah Tughlaq had laid out 1,200 gardens in Delhi, and they bloomed with a variety of flowers and fruits. However, the book does not focus on Sultanate era – it traces the story from the introduction of the Persian Charbagh or walled gardens with the establishment of Mughal rule in the subcontinent.

Although the names and remnants of some Mughal gardens, like Shalimar Bagh, are embedded in the city’s modern geography, Delhi was also studded with other gems like Sahibabad or Begum Bagh that are lost to time. Said to have been laid out by Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara, Begum Bagh so entranced the emperor with its beauty that he is said to have exclaimed, “Agar Firdaus ba rue zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin asto” (If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here).

His oft-quoted Farsi couplet seems apt today; the English word “paradise” is also derived from the Old Persian word “paridaida”, or walled/enclosed garden. By incorporating fountains and symmetric grids into the Mughal Gardens, the British blended the city’s Islamic heritage with English aesthetics.

In addition to contextualising the Garden’s history and evolution, the book also investigates its political ecology and colonial context. Visiting the lush green gardens today, one can barely see the commons and Bajri mines of Raisina village described in the 1884 Delhi Gazette. Through delineating the usurpation of village lands to construct Lutyens’ Delhi, Baviskar explains how, beyond showcasing flora, the Gardens also embody power and domination.

A letter dated 10 January 1913 from Sir James H DuBoulay to H Wheeler (with a note from Captain George S.C. Swinton), presents interesting details on the layout of imperial Delhi, “The British Raj has come up at last to range itself alongside of the monuments of past rulers, and it must quietly dominate them all, Tughlaqabad and Siri as well as Indrapat and Shahjehanabad”. British rulers wanted the new city to aesthetically represent the British “inheritance of, and our dominion over, the traditions and the life of India”.

The book however fails in exploring the political ecology of pre-colonial gardens, which James Wescoat argues were “royal emblems of territorial control”, and Catherine Asher says were conceived as “a visual metaphor for Babur’s ability to control and order the arid Indian plains and ultimately its population”. Even though First Garden doesn’t discuss the political context of Mughal garden-making, it does a wonderful job of humanising Delhi’s periodic politico-ecological endeavours: it was also the result of nostalgia for homes lost. The hiraeth of rulers pining for Central Asian fruits and streams, and people reminiscing about rolling lawns of English landscapes played a role in the transformation of Delhi’s arid climes.

The book presents interesting details of the Garden’s evolution after independence, when the palace became home to Gandhians like the first Indian Governor General C Rajagopalachari, who abhorred the opulence of a building that was a colonial vestige.

Complaining that he felt trapped “…in a zoo and a circus”, Rajaji found comfort in the Gardens, where he planted wheat among the daffodils to represent India’s food shortage, and symbolise solidarity with India’s poor. India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad (1950-62), was also uncomfortable residing in the world’s largest house of a head of state. The Gardens were the sole reward for India’s third president Zakir Hussain (1967-69) as well, whose imprints include the roses still blooming in the estate.

The presidents who followed have left their green footprints too; KR Narayanan (1997-2002) installed rainwater catchment and groundwater refilling systems, and current occupant Pranab Mukherjee (2012 - ) inaugurated a sewage treatment plant that recycles water for gardening. The Gardens today have ISO certification for solar lighting, vermicomposting and waste management.

Krishen, author Trees of Delhi, has painstakingly detailed the different trees planted in and around the Gardens. The book contains details of individual tree species that were planted a century ago to make urban New Delhi “…a sea of foliage”. For example, the Karanj, which is native to the tidal flats of coastal India, was planted because its foliage was unpalatable to livestock and did not need fencing. Some trees like the Kheerni, native to the dry evergreen forests of South Asia, struggle to survive in Delhi’s harsh climate.

In addition to tree-lined avenues, the Gardens also include fragmented patches of wilderness separated from the adjoining central ridge by Willingdon (now Mother Teresa) Crescent. Far from being “original” nature surviving in an artificial environment, the dense foliage and Prosopis juliflora or Vilayati Keekar trees on the ridge are also the result of human intervention and afforestation started by British colonialists. As Helen Macdonald writes in the magical H is for Hawk, “The wild can be human work”. Despite the creation of artificial environments, there is dynamic synergy between the cultivated and wild parts of the Gardens, and many of the 96 species found in the Gardens frequently transcend these man-made borders.

Narendra Bisht’s photography is a glorious accompaniment to Baviskar and Shahabuddin’s description of Mughal Garden’s rich birdlife.

Insects (constituting 73% of all animal species in the world), small reptiles and the dynamics of the forest understory are not overlooked either. Apart from explaining the complex web of species interactions, Shahabuddin also describes the resilience of nature. Camera trap photographs of the few golden jackals surviving in the ridge are a grim reminder that these once ubiquitous mammals have been all but extirpated from the city. She also underlines their poor nutritional health and imperiled existence in a forest surrounded by a concrete jungle.

The book’s deft interweaving of indigenous trees like the Khair and the Ber with wildlife that they support should be a wakeup call for developers in places like Gurgaon, where anglicised names of gated housing complexes are rising along roads named after, and lined with, exotic laburnum and jacaranda trees that cannot support indigenous biodiversity.

Other than the cost, the only grudge, and maybe an unfair one, I have against the book is that it’s unwieldy to carry around when visiting the Mughal Gardens. Unlike informative field books such as Krishen’s Trees of Delhi or Lucy Peck’s A Thousand Years of Building, this is not a volume one wants to trudge along with on a visit to the park.

Nonetheless, First Garden is a book that all Dilliwalas should read, and visit the Mughal Gardens thereafter. The book reminds us that Persian and European influences are an intrinsic part of the city’s cultural and ecological tapestry. In addition to experiencing the heady romance of nature, and being intimidated by the aloof grandness of the state, the book may help residents of Delhi see the heritage of their city in a new light.

The trees and flowers may seem more familiar, the historical marginalisation of subalterns, a little less concealed, and Delhi’s composite culture, a bit more treasured. Perhaps after visiting the Spiritual Garden established by APJ Abdul Kalam to represent India’s religious diversity, one will agree with gardener Ram Singh, who laments, “If 40 types of trees and shrubs can live together in harmony, then why not us humans?”

First Garden of the Republic: Nature in the President’s Estate, edited by Amita Baviskar, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.